By: Anna

My family’s favourite neighbourhood playground was recently completely redesigned. At one of the first community planning meetings, I mentioned that wood chips are some of the best “stuff” of play. Imagine the odd looks. Really? Who is this crazy person? And please remind me why we allow these meetings to be open to the public? WHY?

Woodchips? They go on the ground to cushion children’s falls. They are environmentally sustainable because the town breaks down “used” Christmas trees to make them. But, woodchips for play? No. Play happens on slides, on swings, and on the really cool rope structures that spin.

And, of course, it does. But, what I tried to explain to the committee is that the types of play that evolve when we afford children loose parts such as woodchips are quite different from play that happens on swings and slides. All varieties of play are important, but they are not the same and the differences are critical. When woodchips are combined with other aspects of the playground, play reaches a “tipping point” of sorts. Children expand their thinking away from the permanent, static structures of the space, and a new type of play begins.

Case in point: Last week, my “3 and 5/6” year-old-daughter Eliza and I stopped at a playground after school. We had twenty minutes to spare before picking up my older daughter. The clouds were moving in, a storm was brewing, and our adventure was just beginning.

Eliza said we were going to New York City so I should quickly jump on the wooden fire truck.  She drove. I sat in the back because I was a little kid. “But where are the babies?” Eliza asked.

“We have babies?”

“Yes, these are the babies,” Eliza replied as if it had always been this way. She made two small piles of woodchips next to me on my seat in the back of the fire truck. The babies were hungry so we fed them. They were tired so they cried loudly and then fell asleep.

But when we arrived in NYC, Eliza was concerned. “How will we take the babies with us?”

Luckily, we had Eliza’s plastic sandwich container with us, having just finished her leftover lunch on our “journey to NYC.” She carefully tucked the woodchips into their beds in the container, I placed the container safely on the floor of our real car, and we drove away. As the rain fell hard around us, pounding the windshield, we were all dry and happy – even the babies.

play = two small piles of woodchips

Learn more about how to support child-directed play with loose parts at